A How-To Guide On Photographing Strangers

If you're socially introverted like me, you probably find the thought of approaching a stranger for a portrait in everyday situations downright nauseating. What if they say no? What if they think you’re creepy? What if they are rude and tell you to get lost? These are the thoughts people struggle with at the very thought of approaching someone they don’t know to photograph them. These thoughts often keep many photographers from taking some of the best and most interesting portraits of their lives. 

A few weeks ago I was teaching a class at Shutterfest in St. Louis and stayed back afterwards to speak to some of the students. Moments later a man and his wife walked by browsing the many sights of Union Station and caught my eye. I’ve been working on a series of portraits photographing men with great beards, and he was a prime candidate. As he stood there conversing with his wife I contemplated a strategy to approach him and ask to take his portrait. After all, I just finished teaching a class and had all of my studio gear all set up ready to go. I walked up to them, politely introduced myself and apologized for the intrusion, then proceeded to ask to take his portrait. After a little encouragement from his wife he agreed and allowed me to shoot one of my “Dramatic Portraits,” a series of shots taken with studio lighting at wide-open apertures. The entire “shoot” from the time I approached them to the last frame taken was maybe 5 minutes, but I ended up walking away from it with a great portrait and an even better learning experience.

BTS taken by Thomas Roesner.

BTS taken by Thomas Roesner. Main light was a Phottix Indra 500 inside of their Luna Deep Octa being triggered by the upcoming Phottix Odin II. Camera used was a Sony a7R II with the Tamron 85mm 1.8 via a Viltrox adapter. Background was a black/white collapsible made by Savage.

The final result

Here are some tips I have picked up over the years that will help you approach strangers and photograph them successfully.

Have A Plan Before Approaching Someone

Before walking up to someone to ask to take their photo be sure to have everything ready to go. This means having your preferred camera body, lens, reflector, lighting, etc set up and ready to shoot in the event they agree. Approaching someone and then fumbling to get everything together will end up making you look unskilled and will most likely yield a sub-par portrait. Also, be sure to have a concept in mind for the types of expressions you’re aiming for, and communicate these ideas from start to finish.

Be Polite and Smile!

When approaching a stranger nothing is more disarming than a smile. When I’m walking up to someone in public I always make eye contact, smile, and politely introduce myself. For example, when I approached the gentleman in the photos above I simply said the following;

“Hi! I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Miguel. I’m doing a series of portraits of men with awesome beards and I would love to take your portrait! It won’t take more than a couple of minutes. Would that be okay?”

Being extra polite will increase the likelihood that they will say yes. Once they do be respectful of their time and take your photos as quickly as possible so they can go on with their day. Always be sure to thank them for their time and remember to exchange emails or other contact details so you can deliver the photos once they are ready.

Be Aware of Their Situation

Be courteous and respectful of people and don’t approach them at inopportune times. For example, if you see someone with an interesting look that you want to photograph, but you see they are carrying groceries, having a conversation on the phone, or some other situation where they are clearly occupied, don’t interrupt! This might seem like common sense but far too often I see people approach strangers for various reasons when they are busy and are usually turned away. Timing is just as important as every other step in this process and can’t be overlooked.

Be Confident, Even If You’re Scared to Death

Let’s use our imagination for a moment. Imagine you’re sitting in a hospital room waiting to be treated for a wound. The doctor frantically enters the room, drops your medical records folder, and then loses their glasses as they bend down to pick everything up. At this moment I’m sure your anxiety levels are through the roof. You begin second guessing this person’s ability to help you, and they have a huge climb to restore order and confidence in their ability to patch you up. In contrast, if that same doctor had walked in confidently and told you that the procedure would be simple and painless, you would probably be more calm and willing to let them do whatever they thought was necessary to help. The same holds true for us as photographers. Be confident (not arrogant) that they are in good hands and that you’ll quickly get the photo you’re looking to take. Keep any anxiety or fears on the inside and as the old saying goes, “fake it until you make it.”

Always Be Prepared

One of the things you can do to increase your confidence in these situations is to make a habit of bringing the right camera/lens choices for shooting the types of portraits you like. For me this means bringing along a good 85mm lens with me, as it suits my style of tightly composed portraiture. If shooting wide, environmental style portraits is more your thing, maybe bringing along a 35mm might be better. My everyday walk-around kit usually consists of a lightweight body like the Sony A7RII or Sony A6300 paired with one of Tamron’s SP line of lenses like the 35mm & 85mm 1.8 lenses. Again, whatever your portrait style dictates, bring the gear that you’re most comfortable with and make it happen!

Challenge Yourself Every Day

Many of us have the opportunity every day to go out into the world and interact with strangers, so use that to your advantage and try to take a portrait every day. I treat it almost like playing a video game. Each day I try to get a “high score” and every day that follows I set out to beat that score. Whether that means taking more portraits, or increasing the quality of the shots taken, I try to make a concerted effort to engage in this practice as much as possible. You’ll find in the beginning that it may be terrifying, but the more you do it you’ll get to the point to where you can approach anyone, just about anywhere, and successfully take photos.

BTS shot taken by Thomas Roesner

These are some of my time tested techniques that I'm confident will increase your success rate when approaching strangers to take their portraits. What are some ways you've found that work for you? What are some headaches or roadblocks you've run into? Leave your comments below and I'll try and address the best ones in a future episode of "These Guys I Know"! 

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17 Comments

Great subject and great tips- But what about if you're an amateur photog like me and don't have all the credentials? I'd love to experiment with portraiture, but have no clue as how to approach people. I'd be 100% more confident if I already had some awesome work to show them. I don't have much to differentiate myself from 'just some guy with a camera'. Actually that's exactly what I am... but how do you convey that you're not a creep and really just in it for the photography (without the portfolio)?

Miguel Quiles's picture

Thanks for reading and for your question. I would say that most of the tips in this article would be appropriate for pros and amateurs alike. The man I walked up to had no idea who I was, nor did he see any of my work up until I snapped his photo. It all kinda goes back to being confident and attempting to make the connection. You'll find that the more you practice doing this you'll be able to walk up to anyone out there without much hesitation.

You could start with people, male or female, who WANT their photos taken, to build practice/work. There's the regular lineup of channels for this (friends, MM, IG, etc).

On the other hand, and especially if you're specifically looking for street portraits, people on the street won't know if you're a GWC or Avedon just by you walking up, so just go for it :). Then it's more about your approach and making them *feel* as if you're worth stopping for (or not worth running away from, at least), and get what you need.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Totally agree with Jordan. If you want to build your confidence in shooting portraits you could definitely photograph friends and models. For me I prefer not to get into showing strangers my work ahead of portraits, since people are typically pressed for time as it is. The more conversation we have to have where I'm trying to sell them on letting me photograph them, the less time I'll have to photograph them. Also, it can be intimidating for them if they see your images are really amazing since people typically have low self esteem when it comes to having their pictures taken. Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I heard "I hate having my picture taken" lol :)

James Bailey's picture

While I agree with most of this video, the premise that you're offering your services to a complete stranger on the street, but 'at no point did I say it was free' is a little deceiving. I think better explanation could include, further conversation to determine if that person has a need for a professional headshot or portrait, then a fee can be discussed. If anything the former mentioned is akin to handing out free rap cd's to people on the street then asking them to pay for it :)

Absolutely right. Can't imagine another way around.

Mike Maney's picture

Miguel, what's your process for handling model releases in these situations? I love your example of your opening line and am wondering if you have a similar example for the releases.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Great question! I use an Android model release app that I present at the end. Thats where I get their contact details.

Mike Maney's picture

How do you go about asking them? Is it as simple as "Could you sign this?" Would love to know the language you use to ask them. (Very helpful thread! Thanks!)

Miguel Quiles's picture

I would say something along the lines of "Thank you again for the opportunity to take your portrait. I'd love to get your information so I can send you any shots I decide to edit. Can you give me your information on this model release form? I should have this over to you within a couple of weeks". They read the release, fill out their info, and if for some reason they have any objections to it they bring it up and we handle it from there. To date, I've never had anyone say they didn't want to sign it. I suppose it's all a matter of how you bring it up so your results may vary. Glad you found the info in this article useful!

Mike Maney's picture

Thanks, Miguel. Very helpful. And very generous of your knowledge and experience. Much appreciated.

I don't agree about telling people "you look great let's have a shoot together, but It will cost you".

In fact, If your eye is catched by a person/model and YOU want to work with them (not the other way around) then let me tell you: YOU should be paying them to pose for you.

Don't bait people into thinking it's free when it's not.

As an introvert, approaching strangers is difficult. A number of years ago, my wife and I were celebrating an anniversary at a restaurant when I saw a family walk in. I said to my wife "I recognize that guy. He's Charles Bolden, a NASA astronaut." We were almost finished with our dinner, but we stayed until they were finished with their meal. I didn't want to intrude on their family time. We approached them, I introduced ourselves and said that we are big fans of NASA and follow the space program. I got his autograph. Lt. Col. Charles Bolden was taking a break from the Challenger investigation to visit family back home.
But as an INTP, I have a problem approaching strangers.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Thats awesome! Im a huge space junkie myself and definitely would have nerded out had that been me. Haha You'll find the more you get use to approaching people the easier and more skillful you'll get.

Thanks Miguel. I've seen two final flights: the launch US half of the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project and the final Space Shuttle flight. I didn't have a camera for Apollo, but the sound and fury was incredible. I had a camera for Atlantis; I shot film. At the KSC visitors center, I handed my camera to two strangers for a photo against the wall of signatures wishing the Final Four a successful mission. One guy didn't know how to operate a film camera, but his friend did. I returned to KSC to see Atlantis land.
I've been a member of Toastmasters; that has helped; but I still have reservations approaching someone on the street.

Miguel Quiles's picture

I too am a member of Toastmasters. I've been attending for almost 5 years now and I can honestly say I couldn't do everything I do now if it wasn't for what I learned there.

Agree. Serving as Area Governor was a challenge and serving as Division Governor was a bigger leap for me. As Division Governor, I didn't micromanage the areas; I hate to be micromanaged. I let the Area Governors do their style and answered questions.